02 October, 2009

The Silver Eagle, by Ben Kane. Book review

Edition reviewed: Preface Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84809-011-8. 402 pages.

Sequel to The Forgotten Legion, The Silver Eagle is set across most of the Roman known world in 55 BC to 48 BC. Julius Caesar, Decimus Brutus*, and some of the senior Roman officers and politicians are secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Fabiola, sold into prostitution as a child slave, has been bought and freed by her lover, senior army officer Decimus Brutus. Her twin brother Romulus and his friends the Etruscan soothsayer Tarquinius and the mighty Gaulish warrior Brennus were captured by the Parthians after Crassus’ disastrous defeat at Carrhae (told in The Forgotten Legion), and are now serving the Parthians as border guards in the distant province of Margiana (modern Turkmenistan). Fabiola wants to find out if her brother is still alive and to take revenge on the unidentified Roman aristocrat who raped her mother. Romulus wants to return to Rome and find his sister – but he, Tarquinius and Brennus must first face an epic battle in India and a dangerous journey from the ends of the known world. And Fabiola faces her own challenges in the no less perilous world of Roman high politics.

The four leads are the same as in The Forgotten Legion, virtuosos in every respect. The all-action cinematic style of The Forgotten Legion is continued in the sequel, and if anything the pace is even faster. Rapid intercutting between Fabiola’s adventures in Rome and Romulus, Brennus and Tarquinius in the east, always switching scene at a crucial moment with one or more of the leads on the brink of death, adds to the sense of breakneck speed. Fans of graphic battle scenes will find much to enjoy in the description of the Battle of Pharsalus and the 30-page epic (fictional) battle between the Forgotten Legion and the armies of the Indian kings, which takes place by the River Hydaspes in what is now the Punjab, literally on the edge of the Roman known world**.

Paradoxically, as I noted with the previous book, the technique of always leaving at least one character in mortal peril started to pall after a while, at least for me. I find it difficult to maintain a constant peak of dramatic tension when there are no quieter interludes to provide contrast, and after a while I got rather blasé and found myself thinking not “are they going to get out of that?” but “I wonder how they’re going to get out of that?”, which is not quite the same thing. This feeling was accentuated by the frequent use of prophecy.

Mysticism and supernatural visions featured in The Forgotten Legion, and this theme is continued and developed further in The Silver Eagle. In the earlier book, Tarquinius was established as a soothsayer with real supernatural powers to predict the future. In The Silver Eagle, I felt the mysticism tipped over the balance into historical fantasy. Romulus now also has prophetic visions, and Fabiola not only has visions but undergoes some sort of shape-shifting experience. This is not belief or illusion, as many other characters (an entire army) see her for real in her shape-changed form. Events are so heavily prophesied and foreshadowed that although the plot twists and turns there are few surprises. For example, the jacket copy says that of the three heroes “only two will survive”, but the prophecies in the first book, heavily repeated in The Silver Eagle, make it obvious from the beginning who has the short straw. This has the effect of reducing the suspense, and for me it gave the book a curious feel of waiting for the inevitable to happen.

The worship of Mithras, a soldier’s god, is widespread among the Parthians (as one would expect, given the eastern origin of the cult), and also runs through the Roman Army like a sort of first-century Freemasonry. This gives an interesting slant, as Tarquinius and Romulus in Parthia and Fabiola in Rome all encounter the Mithraic religion at about the same time, despite being thousands of miles apart.

Roman high politics and the civil war between Caesar and Pompey form a dramatic backdrop to Fabiola’s escapades in Rome, and her adventures provide a neat way of keeping the reader in touch with the Roman world while also following the three heroes in the distant east. The identity of the rapist who fathered Fabiola and Romulus is made clear in this book, just in case anyone hadn’t worked it out from the clues in The Forgotten Legion (yes, it is who I thought it was, and no, I’m not going to give it away here. Email me if you want to know). I suspect I can hazard a guess at the centrepiece of the third book in the trilogy, and possibly some of the roles the three remaining leads are going to play. Fabiola has already sown a seed that looks as if it might bear dramatic fruit in the Senate in 44 BC.

The geographical spread of The Silver Eagle is if anything even wider than that of The Forgotten Legion, which is saying something. The plot ranges from Gaul in the north all the way to India in the east and the coast of Africa in the south. The scene on the Ethiopian coast where the characters encounter Africa’s iconic wildlife – elephants, giraffes, antelopes – is one of the most memorable in the book. And the cast of subsidiary characters is equally exotic, including nomadic steppe tribesmen, pirates in the Indian Ocean and a wild beast hunter in Africa.

Greatly to the author’s credit, the lengthy civil war between Pompey and Caesar isn't compressed for plot purposes, the book simply makes use of the “Two years later” technique in chapter headings to skip over events that would be too complicated to tell in detail. As with The Forgotten Legion, a helpful Author’s Note summarises some of the underlying history and an invaluable map helps in locating all the exotic places and following the characters on their extensive travels.

Frenetic all-action historical fantasy spanning the limits of the Roman known world.

* The Brutus everyone has heard of, of “Et tu Brute” fame in Shakespeare, is Marcus Junius Brutus. Decimus Brutus was a contemporary who served as an officer in Caesar’s army in Gaul. I guess they were probably related, but they were different individuals.
**The river marked the limit of Alexander the Great’s campaign in 325 BC, so it was the furthest limit of the Mediterranean world’s knowledge of Asia.


Gabriele Campbell said...

The book reminded me a bit of Cornwell's Warlord trilogy. Lots of action, some magic thrown in ... definitely a fun romp. Kane is contracted for a new trilogy about the Hannibal wars, btw. Betcha we'll get some more elephants. :)

Carla said...

More mysticism than Cornwell, I'd say, but I can see the similarities. The Hannibal campaign should suit the same sort of treatment :-) I wonder if his elephant(s) will end up being the starring role, as happened with the elephant in Caligula and Claudius?